l’Artisan Parfumeur Dzing! or, Is Niche Dead?

Posted on

I’ve been thinking about how we consider perfumery not just an art but an art form.  Many would agree that perfumery is an art, in that it involves creativity and beauty. But fewer would consider it more broadly an art form, having recognizable trends and aesthetic criteria.  We haven’t been taught to view perfumery as a form that fosters critical thinking.

A confusing point is that terms such as genre, school, trend and movement tend to be used interchangeably when discussing the categorization of perfume. It’s worth making some distinctions for the sake of understanding perfumery as a specific art form.

Trends are easy to identify and discuss. Trends are simply grouped occurrences identified after the fact. Even trends that we speak of in the present exist as patterns that have already occured before we identify them.  The trend of the fruity floral, the trend of ethylmaltol use, the trend in the 1920s-1930s of referring to balsamic, resinous perfumes as “oriental”.

We refer to schools loosely as either 1) using a specific style, or 2) broadly making a distinction between traditional and non-traditional approaches.  As an example of the former, Jean Claude Ellena belongs to the minimalist school of perfumery. In the latter, Patricia de Nicolai, belonging to a familial and aesthetic lineage, works within the classical school of perfumery.

In perfumery, genre describes compositional forms.  Chypre, fougère, eau de cologne. These are forms that are defined by their components, and are more like chemical families than artistic genres in this respect.

Chandler Burr, a fragrance critic and Curator of the Department of Olfactory Art at the Museum of Arts and Design is a proponent of viewing  perfumery by artistic movement, ie. romaticism, surrealism, etc..  His work goes a long way toward placing perfumery in the mind of the public as an art form, but there is an inherent incongruity in placing the nomenclature of one sensory form (the visual or the written) on another (the olfactory).  Still, historical movements such as modernism or post-modernism affect many forms of creative thinking and can be used to advance arguments and discussion.  Perhaps there are movements in the history of perfumery inherent specifically to the olfactory that will be recognized in the future.

Schools and movements often have credos, manifestos, statements of intent or the like.  It is arguable that there is little distinction between such statements in the past and current marketing and PR, but aside from a few cheeky derivations such as Etat Libre d’Orange’s   “Le parfum est mort.  Vive le parfum!” (Perfume is dead.  Long live perfume!) perfumery doesn’t stake a conceptual claim and then illuminate it.

So, Dzing (1999).  I tend to dislike narrative in art, and even more in the explanation of daily life.  It seems so pat, so tedious.  Narrative is often touted as a way of making sense out of confusion, but I find it more often seeks to create an expectation that the participant will fulfill, incorrectly or not, in order to have the safety of a conclusion rather than an ambiguity or a question.  Dzing appeals to me for the fact that it presents the circus by systematically breaking down an image to its constituent parts, then rearranging a few of them as clues that suggest a scenario. There is an association between the olfactory elements of Dzing and the circus.  Dzing smacks of a sweet treat to eat. There’s the hint of straw and sawdust covering the ground, the implication of being confined within a tented space with other people and even animals.  Dzing doesn’t beat you over the head with its message like a Spielberg film.  It leads you to a suggestion.  I doubt that without being told about the circus imagery many would sniff Dzing and say, “Circus!”  But as a well designed piece of art, whether you take the circus image and run with it or simply appreciate the perfume more abstractly, it conveys aesthetic intention.  To suggest with a perfume an experience that is ridiculous if not surreal in the first place is a brilliant concept and I applaud the perfumer Olivia Giacobetti for pulling it off so effectively.

Niche perfumery seems to me to have moved away from the creative and the conceptual toward the merely luxurious.  Dzing reminds that I first came to niche as a way to find quality and innovation that was lacking in the larger commercial market.  I don’t look to niche to comfort me with beauty that may or may not be provided any longer by Caron, Chanel or Guerlain.  Almost 15 years after its release, Dzing is still the unbeaten the high-water mark of niche as a statement of defiance to the restraints of commercial perfumery.  Who needs a countertop full of plush pieces of oud perfume finery that cost north of $300?  I don’t.

La niche est morte.  Vive la niche!

  • Share